A 12-day layoff felt even longer as No. 13 West Virginia tried to comprehend what went so dreadfully wrong in its last game.
Still in the thick of the Big 12 race, and after a period of serious self-reflection, the Mountaineers (5-1, 3-1) host Baylor (4-3, 2-2) on Thursday night in Morgantown, W.Va.
Kickoff will be a relief for West Virginia considering all the soul searching that has transpired since a 30-14 upset loss at Iowa State on Oct. 13.
Passing game woes
Heisman Trophy candidate Will Grier threw for a meager 100 yards and the team netted only 152 total yards, its fewest since 1995. It was a jarring setback for an offense that fancied itself one of the nation’s most prolific.
“We have to fix a few things. I just thought our timing was a little off,” said Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen. “I think I know how we will respond. We’re going to go out there, and we’re going to play our [tails] off.”
Sacked seven times by the Cyclones, Grier contributed to the negative plays while holding the ball too long. The nation’s third-ranked passer couldn’t capitalize on his trademark scrambles that typically allow receivers to run open downfield.
“I think that I’m trying to extend plays and give us a spark,” Grier said. “In certain situations I have to get rid of the ball, and that’s the gray area being the playmaker and being the quarterback. If somebody gets open and I throw a 60-yard touchdown, then I don’t think anybody is going to tell me to throw the ball away. That’s part of playing this position — it falls on me.”
Throughout the bye week, WVU worked to sharpen its passing routes and challenged its offensive line to be more physical. At the forefront of it all is Grier, who passed up the NFL draft last winter in hopes of leading the Mountaineers to their first Big 12 title.
That goal remains in reach, thanks to upcoming games against Texas and Oklahoma, but Grier must rebound against a hungry Baylor squad that nearly upset No. 7 Texas two weeks ago.
“Will is doing a really good job, in terms of his energy, his body language and how he’s been practicing these last few days,” said West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. “I think these kids are more anxious to get out there on a national TV game, with a lot of eyes on them. They’re ready to get back on track.”
Bowl game within Baylor’s grasp
Under second-year coach Matt Rhule, the Bears are two wins shy of bowl eligibility with five games left. They are 14-point underdogs in Morgantown, the same long odds they faced at Texas in what became a 23-17 loss. Quarterback Charlie Brewer drove Baylor 80 yards in the final minutes before misfiring three times into the end zone.
“We’ve all seen the flashes,” said Bears offensive lineman Blake Blackmar. “Coach Rhule has talked to us about taking the next step. We all know how good we can be. It’s just about believing it all the time. Right now, I think we’re getting more and more of the core to move over to that. We do not have to lose. We do not have to have close games. We can beat people up front and we can dominate.”
In last year’s 38-36 loss to West Virginia, Brewer came off the bench and led Baylor to 23 unanswered points. His potential game-tying two-point pass in the final 17 seconds was foiled by a sack.
While this Baylor offense won’t rival the scorching attacks of the Art Briles era, Brewer has sufficient weapons. They include Tennessee transfer Jalen Hurd — a converted running back who leads the team with 47 receptions and 622 yards — and preseason All-Big 12 receiver Denzel Mims, who’s aiming for another 1,000-yard season.
“We know we’re walking in to face a highly, highly motivated team,” Rhule said. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re highly motivated and highly prepared.”
–Field Level Media